2023 William C. Frye Award Recipient - Ted and Mary Kellner

Kellners find their purpose in giving back to the community

Ted Kellner is a consummate fundraiser. If you look at many of the major capital campaigns that have taken place in Milwaukee’s nonprofit community over the years, one name you will frequently find on the list as a supporter or leader is Ted’s.

Mary Kellner is passionate about education, particularly literacy. Peruse the annual reports of the area’s major education groups or initiatives and you will see Mary’s name pop up as a supporter or volunteer.

Well-respected leaders in Milwaukee’s business, education and philanthropic communities, the couple has spent the past 40-plus years channeling their passions and skills toward improving nearly every major nonprofit and civic entity in Milwaukee. The common denominator of their work? Doing what is best for Milwaukee.

“It always just feels good to do something for somebody if you can,” Mary said. “When you do volunteer work it, broadens you. 

Ted is the former chairman and CEO of Fiduciary Management, a money management firm he founded in 1980. He is also co-founder and chairman of Fiduciary Real Estate Development. Mary spent her career in education, first as an elementary school teacher and later as a guidance counselor for the Mequon-Thiensville School District. 

Ted points to University of Wisconsin-Madison – their alma mater where they first met – as the place where the seeds for their philanthropy were first planted. He graduated from its business school while Mary graduated from its school of education. 

“It started at Madison with the hopes of replicating and giving others the same opportunity for education (that we had),” Ted said.

Over the years, UW has been a frequent beneficiary of their generosity. They have given millions of dollars to the school’s business, education, athletic programs, facilities and scholarship programs. Ted has served on its foundation, alumni association and business school and athletic boards.

The Kellners are well known for their philanthropic investments in Milwaukee as well. They have invested heavily in places such as Cardinal Stritch, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. 

The Kelben Foundation – their family foundation they started in 1984 – has been a large source of their philanthropy. It has awarded 8,000 scholarships, ranging between $500 and $2,000, to Milwaukee Public School graduates. Mary and a committee of seven former teachers read the scholarship application letters each year. The foundation also donates to other local nonprofits, with a particular focus on health, mental health and education.

Ted has served on the boards of Children’s Hospital, Greater Milwaukee Committee, Medical College of Wisconsin, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Milwaukee World Festival. Mary has served on the boards of Cardinal Stritch, Next Door, Pathway High, All in Milwaukee, City Forward Collective, SHARP Literacy and UWM Foundation.

“There is never a lack of organizations that will come to you,” Ted said. “You can pick your spots where you’ve got passion, and you think you can make a difference.” 

For Ted, he has made his mark as head of area capital campaigns – including three with Children’s Hospital, two with Medical College of Wisconsin and three at UW-Madison. 

Mary has left a legacy through programs like Next Door’s Books for Kids, which she founded in 1990 to help get free books into the hands of the nonprofit’s families. The nonprofit has since handed out more than 2 million books through the program, which now includes a mobile book program, community library and Read with Me initiative, where volunteers come to the nonprofit to read with children.

“I’m just thrilled to see that community members are coming and reading to the kids. Plus the kids are getting to take home these books and having their own libraries. It’s heartwarming,” Mary said.

And when they get involved with an organization – they stay involved for the long term. Mary has been involved with Next Door since 1978. Ted jokes that his nickname is “CFL” or “chairman for life.” He has served on the Children’s Hospital board since 1984 and remains engaged with groups like the GMC and MMAC, where he served as chair.

Neither one thinks about retiring or scaling back their civic contributions. One of Ted’s latest role is as CEO of the Republican National Convention host committee, which is responsible for raising $68 million for the event in July 2024. More than 50,000 are expected to attend the two-week event, creating a $200 million impact on Milwaukee.

“It’s neither red nor blue,” said Ted, who served as treasurer for the Democratic National Convention in 2020. “It’s green. It’s about Milwaukee. It’s good for Milwaukee. I like doing stuff like that.” 

Mary is collaborating with several other community members to create a 501c3 that is a spinoff of the Kellner Family Literacy Center at Cardinal Stritch, which shut down in May 2023 when the university closed. Eventually she hopes to have literacy centers in different library branches in Milwaukee. 

“I see too many people that retire and they don’t have any purpose,” Mary said. “I’m a huge believer in purpose and we both feel that we have purpose.” 

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